Outside, just beyond our front door, Pa was having a word with the bank man.
Inside, Jessamyn splashed a cold shock of water over my scalp to loosen up the last week’s worth of dust from my hair. It sloshed at the bottom of the washbasin, cloudy as pond muck.
“Watch it you don’t splash my eye,” I spat, shaking my head like a wet dog.
“What you gotten into anyway? Your head’s as dirty as your feet,” said Jess.
“Good,” I said, “that’s how I like it.”
Jess answered back with another pour of water that flooded my eyes and ears for just a moment.
She was doing this on purpose. Washing my hair. Keeping my head down. Pinning me here in the kitchen over a doggone washbasin. She was doing it so I wouldn’t see what was going on.
But I knew.
I knew that bank man was coming. I knew what he was there for. And I knew what would happen when he was done with us.
Besides, Jess couldn’t keep me from peering up through my dripping locks to look down the dark empty hall into the empty sitting room and out there just beyond the screen door.
Pa was standing there, stunted fields of wheat behind him, our sad, still windmill looking on in the distance. He was standing, all dust and jeans and wounded pride. Seeing him like that, his work shirt faded and thin against the black brushed suit of that man, made me hold on tight to the washbasin so the world wouldn’t spin too bad.
It’d been spinning a lot more than usual lately.
“Quit looking, Gloria,” Jessamyn snapped, scrubbing harder, but I kept my eyes on Pa.
He had taken the bank man outside so we didn’t have to hear him beg. But even with all Jessamyn’s sloshing and scrubbing and scolding, I could still hear him say words like “loan,” “please,” and “one more week.”
He could’ve said all that in front of me. Our things had been packed for weeks. Ma had already sent her wedding linen to Aunt May in Tulsa for safekeeping. I’d seen the look on the grocer’s face when we came in. I’d heard Pa cursing at the fields and the sky and the rain, wherever it was. And I’d heard Ma and Pa whispering long into the night when we all should’ve been sleeping.
I knew what it meant when you didn’t pay and didn’t pay and didn’t pay. I felt it in the worn-out knees of my overalls and in the empty part of my stomach. I could see it in the way Pa carried himself and in the way Ma looked out the window.
It wasn’t our fault.
First the rain stopped falling. Then the wheat stopped growing. Then the dust storms started coming. Then the tractor stopped working, and the jars in the cellar started dwindling, and Pa stopped joking and joshing like the words dried right up in his mouth.
And then Ma got big. And Pa tried not to say How we gonna feed one more kid but we all knew he was thinking it. And Ma tried not to say We’ve lost our minds bringing a baby into this world but we all knew she was thinking it. I tried not to say how rip-roaring it would be to be someone’s big sister, but they all knew I was thinking it. By the time Little Si came screaming into the world, we all knew just to hold our tongues and stare that something so tiny and so perfect could come when there’d been nothing but bad news. He was scrawny and red as a cherry, but Ma was beaming because she said other than being fussy he was the healthiest baby she’d seen.
Maybe she was lying, but I don’t think so. I just think when you’re so small, you can’t take as much dust into you as a girl like me can.
It was just me and Jess there in the kitchen, the two of us. It should’ve been three.
“Jess…?” I mumbled into the washbasin.
I bit my lip. I was about to say something I knew I shouldn’t. I’d been dancing around it all week since Pa had said quietly at supper that we were gonna have to leave our farm and head west for greener pastures and better work in California. I’d held my tongue when Jessamyn begged Ma not to kill the egg-laying chickens she had raised and given glamour names to. I’d held my tongue when Ma went out back and snapped Yvette and Rosalina’s necks anyway. I’d held my tongue when Pa had taken apart the bed Jessamyn and I shared and sold it for scrap so he could get our pickup truck in shape for the drive. I’d held my tongue just like everyone else had held their tongue about whatever it was that was on their minds that was just too sad to say out loud.
Fat lot of good it’d done me. Or us.
“Don’t you think the bank would let us keep the farm if they knew about Little Si?”
Jessamyn stopped scrubbing. She hadn’t said a word about Little Si. Nobody had. Ma’d buttoned up her sorrow like a Sunday dress. And Pa kept his locked tight in his jaw.
“Well, don’t you think?” I asked again.
Jessamyn was still behind me. Too still.
“He ain’t even been in the ground two months. It ain’t fair to kick us out.”
Maybe we could get one more day, one more week. Maybe it would rain real good tomorrow or the day after, maybe the bank man didn’t know, maybe if he knew he’d take his hat off and drive away and never come back.
She didn’t answer. So I kept on going.
“It ain’t right. He’s gotta say something. Pa’s gotta say something. Maybe that bank man’s got kids, too, maybe if he just knew what happened—”
The wet rag snapped across my bottom and I let a cussword fly.
“What did you say, Gloria?” Jessamyn snapped.
She yanked me back by the shoulder to give me her best big-sister stare. Water dripped off my hair and soaked into the straps of my overalls.
I mumbled what I said under my breath even though she knew darn well what I said.
“Speak up, Gloria.”
“I said,” I began loudly, “Jesus H. Ch—”
Jessamyn let that wet rag snap against my bottom one more time to make her point.
“Honestly, Gloria, why you gotta bring up stuff no one wants to talk about?”
Jess shoved my head back down so she could get in behind my ears. She was scrubbing and scrubbing like she could scrub away the bank man, the dust, and what lay buried beneath the old cottonwood. Like she could scrub away me knowing I’d heard her cry the night Little Si died. But I had heard her. And if she weren’t so darned set about being contrary for the sake of it, I bet she’d be as mad as me about what was happening.
“So that’s it?” I said. “You just gonna back down without a fight? You fine with leaving one of us here?”
Jess lowered her voice and hissed right into my ear, “You want Ma to hear you talking ’bout all this?”
My tongue went slack in my mouth. Truth was, I figured Ma might crack open like an egg if you didn’t take enough care around her. Split right down the middle. Truth was, I could barely stand to be in the same room with her. We were silent for a good long while, Jess’s hands hovering over me like they’d forgotten how to wash.
“Just keep out of it, Gloria,” she said, almost soft enough to be a whisper.
“That’s what you always say,” I said.
“Well, that’s what you always need to hear.”
I waited for her to start in on me again, maybe even start yanking at the knots I knew were back there. But she didn’t move. I peered over my shoulder and I could see her head held up high and alert. She was listening close to the sounds coming off the porch.
“It’s almost done anyway,” she said softly.
I gave a shove to the washbasin, sloshing some of the dirty water up and over the rim. There was a wet splat on the floor and Jess jumped back.
“Why you got to—Glo, you soaked my shoes!”
“Why you got to make everything harder for everyone?”
“I ain’t trying to—”
“You being a pill on purpose. You think ’cause Ma and Pa ain’t got time to mind you, you get to be a wild child?”
“I ain’t a wild child, I just wanna stay!”
Jessamyn whipped me around and took my head in her hands like she was gonna knock some literal sense into me. She started to speak and then looked around to make sure no one was in earshot. “You think I want to go west? You think I want to leave my friends?”
“I think you wanna stay wherever Joe Franklin’s sweet son is staying—”
Jess flicked her fingers against my ribs. Talking about Joe Franklin’s boy always got to her.
“Honestly, Glo, is that all you can think about? I hardly got him on my mind. What I got on my mind is leaving this place and being stuck with no one to talk to but you. Minding you. Watching you. You like a stone around my neck.”
“I ain’t so bad—”
“Glo, you’re the last person I wanna be in the back of a truck with for a thousand miles, or however long we driving for. Talking about your stupid baseball stuff, and—”
“It ain’t stupid!”
“You thinking you’re good enough to pitch for the Balko boys is stupid, Gloria. And I don’t want to be hearing about it all the way to California.”
It stung. Bringing up the Balko boys and the team they never let me play on.
“Well, I am good enough, they just ain’t seen it yet—”
“No group of boys is ever gonna let a girl play ball with them.”
“Well, why not?”
“I dunno, Gloria, that’s just how it is!”
“Well, I could show ’em—”
“No you can’t. Not hanging round them every day like a gosh-darn puppy dog.”
She had a point. I’d been sneaking off whenever they practiced and hanging around the baseball diamond, waiting and hoping they’d give me a chance. For a moment that open field flashed through my mind, along with the sound of the bat hitting the ball into the sky. I could hear them all whooping for each other, getting louder each time a runner passed a base.
And then my eyes darted back to the porch window where Pa was raking his fingers across his cheek. Thinking about pitching suddenly did feel stupid.
“Fine, Jess, to heck with the Balko boys. But why ain’t Pa fighting for us?”
Jess threw her arms up. “Pa ain’t fighting ’cause there’s no reason for us to stay. This place is dead, you hear? The land’s dead. The tractor’s dead. The wheat’s dead. The sky is dead, my chickens are dead… and… and you know what else.”
She whipped me back around to face her and dried her hands off on her skirt.
“Can you dry yourself off, or you need me to do that, too?”
“I ain’t a baby.”
“No?” Jess said, throwing me a dish towel. “Prove it.”
I looked back over to Pa on the front porch talking to the bank man.
Just tell him about Little Si, I thought, tell him what we been through, tell him what it was like, tell him we need a little more time.
But instead I heard Pa say, “No, sir, I understand.”
The words dropped down my insides like stones down a dried-up well. I felt them hit the bottom and turn to something ugly.
Sir. Pa had called him sir. Ma was tying the last of our stuff to the truck like she was getting paid to do it. Jessamyn clearly thought the best thing to do was to give my hair a wash. Things seemed to be about as upside down as they could be.
“Why I gotta be clean anyway?” I grumbled. “We just gonna get dirty on the road, you know Ma and Pa are gonna make me and you sit in the back.”
Jessamyn rolled her eyes as far back in her head as they could go.
“You gotta be clean ’cause we gotta drive through town first. You gotta be clean ’cause you’re Ma and Pa’s little girl. You gotta be clean ’cause you’re my little sister. If that’s not enough for you, you gotta be clean ’cause given the circumstances, everyone’s gonna think we oughtta look like trash. Don’t prove ’em right, Glo.”
I hardened all the muscles in my face. The ugly thing was putting down roots in my insides.
“Me looking like I’m fresh outta a shop window ain’t gonna help us keep this farm and it ain’t gonna bring Little Si back.”
Jessamyn dropped her empty water bucket with a bang.
“Shut up! Honestly, Gloria, when will you learn that sometimes you gotta shut up!”
She snatched the washbasin, now filled with my dirt, rested it on her hip, grabbed the bucket, and stormed out back to toss the cloudy water. I wanted to tell her it didn’t matter if she sloshed it out right here on the kitchen floor.
They were going to level our house anyway.
I watched Jessamyn’s back as she disappeared through the screen door. Out back, Ma took a step towards her and asked her something. Jessamyn shook her head and threw up her free hand, gesturing towards me in the house. Ma put her hands on her hips and looked at the dirt.
They could talk about me all they wanted. Call me wild child and call me dirty. This was still our house. This was still our land. That was still my brother out back. And Pa hadn’t signed any papers yet.
I put my hands on my own hips the way I saw Ma do it, but I didn’t look at the ground. I stared straight out the front window at the bank man and caught the sun glinting off his silver watch chain. He looked out of place here, all polished up like he was. If he knew, if he understood, he wouldn’t make us go. I knew it in my bones. I could walk right out there and stand next to my pa, take his hand and say—
Mr. Bank Man, let me set the record straight—
No, I’d say—
Mr. Bank Man, get off our land!
No, I’d say—
Mr. Bank Man, why don’t you and I take a walk over to this cottonwood and I’ll tell you some things you ought to know.
That sounded right. I cleared my throat and puffed up my chest to give me a little more courage than I had. This was what a hero would do in a picture, all lit up in silver. Step in and do what everyone said he shouldn’t in the name of justice. No matter how they’d been wronged. Jessamyn would thank me later. They all would. I’d make the bank man feel sore about what he was up to, he’d give us another week, and the sky would prove Jessamyn wrong that it wasn’t dead, and it would open up and soak the fields and little green shoots would come up like they used to and Pa would take my hands and say Thank God for Gloria! We thought we were done for, but Gloria knew we had a chance!
I started moving towards the front door. I walked through the dark hall, past the empty sitting room Ma had been so proud of. “I don’t mind being a farmer’s wife,” she always said. “Long as I have a sitting room in my house.”
Maybe if Ma could keep her sitting room she’d be less likely to break.
Maybe if a neighbor gave Jess two chicks she could rear them up and lay off giving me lip.
Maybe if Pa had his land he wouldn’t be walking around so ashamed and talking so low, like he was embarrassed to be heard.
If no one was going to do anything, then I sure as heck was ready to step up.
I grabbed the front doorknob.
I turned it.
I stepped out onto the front porch, that bank man’s black hat eclipsing the sun, but he didn’t scare me. Nothing could scare me now. Not after everything we’d been through. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Pa’s red, raw eyes and the collar of his shirt fluttering in the breeze. It filled me up with all the words I needed to take back what was ours from the brink of losing it—
“Listen, here, mister,” I said, “I got something to say—”
But all that breath for all those words burst right out of me as Ma’s arms scooped me around the middle and yanked me back into the house, door slamming in my face.